PRO­DUC­TIV­ITY APPS – ARE THEY JUST A WASTE OF TIME?

▶ Some say the tech­nol­ogy is ac­tu­ally con­sum­ing the time and ef­fort users are try­ing to save in the pur­suit of ef­fi­ciency. Rho­dri Mars­den re­ports

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

Ev­ery week apps are launched that prom­ise to make us more pro­duc­tive, to stream­line work­flows, bol­ster our ef­fi­ciency and some­how tur­bocharge our day. The nag­ging sense that we are not get­ting enough done prompts us to seek magic solutions. Tech­nol­ogy has made countless at­tempts to come to our res­cue – with var­ied re­sults.

Among the cur­rent crop of ac­claimed apps are a time-track­ing aid called For­est, a to-do list man­ager called Taskade, and No­tion, a project man­age­ment tool. But the list of apps that seek to pave our way to a bet­ter-or­gan­ised, hap­pier fu­ture is a mile long.

“There are so many,” says Francesco D’Alessio, who runs a pop­u­lar YouTube chan­nel called Keep Pro­duc­tive. “It’s ironic that I spend much of my spare time re­view­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity apps. But it’s be­cause I know there’s a need for them.” That per­ceived need is greater now than ever be­fore. Back in the early 1970s, the Swedish econ­o­mist Staffan Lin­der coined the phrase “har­ried leisure class” to de­scribe peo­ple in wealth­ier coun­tries mak­ing fu­tile at­tempts to make their time more pro­duc­tive. But 21st cen­tury life in­volves many more com­pet­ing pres­sures on our time.

“Things are speed­ing up around us,” says Ed Lamont, co-founder of Next Ac­tion As­so­ci­ates, a con­sul­tancy that helps in­di­vid­u­als and busi­nesses im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity. “We’re un­der tremen­dous pres­sure to do more to keep up. But our core hu­man needs, such as be­ing loved and re­spected, don’t re­spond very well to that speed­ing up.”

When apps fail to de­liver

The way we use pro­duc­tiv­ity apps tends to re­flect that very hu­man frus­tra­tion, as we in­stall them, try them and then quickly re­ject them when they seem to fail us. That “fail­ing”, ac­cord­ing to Lamont, stems from their at­tempts to be all things to all peo­ple.

“They’re of­ten over­built by peo­ple who are al­ready pretty or­gan­ised,” he says. “So they’ll kit them out with all these tools, and sud­denly it’s a three-minute op­er­a­tion to en­ter some­thing into your sys­tem. Which you might do if you have the time, but you cer­tainly won’t if you’re busy.”

D’Alessio con­curs that com­plex­ity can present prob­lems. “You can spend years learn­ing the ma­jor pro­duc­tiv­ity apps and how they work struc­turally,” he says, “but I be­lieve that once you’ve found the soft­ware you need, you should spend a min­i­mal amount of time ac­tu­ally us­ing it, and fo­cus on do­ing the work.”

On his YouTube chan­nel, D’Alessio con­veys huge en­thu­si­asm for the ca­pac­ity of these apps to achieve or­der – an en­thu­si­asm shared by his fol­low­ers and com­menters – but there’s a sense that the most en­thu­si­as­tic users of pop­u­lar apps such as Todoist and Trello are very or­gan­ised by their na­ture; they take to new sys­tems and struc­tures eas­ily and de­rive an aes­thetic plea­sure from see­ing their lives pre­sented in a very neat, or­dered fash­ion.

“It’s true that pro­duc­tiv­ity apps are of­ten just a crutch for peo­ple, and you even see peo­ple re­fer­ring to the ‘cult’ of pro­duc­tiv­ity,” says D’Alessio. “But I be­lieve that there’s so much choice out there that it’s al­most silly not to use one.”

With such a wide range avail­able, from the min­i­mal­ist, un­com­pli­cated ap­proach of Blink to the “time-box­ing” strat­egy used by Fo­cusList, there’s a good rea­son to sup­pose that there’s some­thing out there for every­one. But Lamont be­lieves that peo­ple’s hopes tend to be set too high and, cru­cially, we have a re­sis­tance to change that apps can­not over­come.

“It’s like play­ing the pi­ano,” he says. “You have to groove new path­ways in your brain, and that’s a process which takes time. Only then can the tech­nol­ogy re­ally help. I went through the same thing in 1995 when I got my first Psion or­gan­iser. It was an amaz­ing tool, and I was con­vinced that it would sort ev­ery­thing out. But I just filled it up with rub­bish and it didn’t help me.”

The dig­i­tal detox para­dox

That idea that dig­i­tal de­vices al­most con­spire against our at­tempts to get things done is re­flected in the re­cent pop­u­lar­ity of apps that use per­sua­sion to help us fo­cus on the things that mat­ter. Mo­ment (for iOS) and Qual­i­tyTime (for An­droid) track how much time you spend look­ing at your phone and then present you with the in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence.

Hold, de­vel­oped by a team at Copen­hagen Busi­ness School, of­fers money-off vouch­ers, free cof­fees and cin­ema tick­ets as a

re­ward for stu­dents in cer­tain Euro­pean coun­tries that don’t use their smart­phone.

The afore­men­tioned For­est, rid­ing high in many na­tional app charts, en­cour­ages you to leave your de­vice alone for 25-minute pe­ri­ods by grow­ing vir­tual trees in your very own vir­tual for­est. Dare to look at your phone dur­ing that pe­riod, and a tree withers and dies.

“They’re a nice ad­di­tion,” says D’Alessio. “But then you have your note taker, your to-do list app, your cal­en­dar app, and now this whole other breed of habit track­ers, when you re­ally should be keep­ing it min­i­mal.”

Lamont agrees. “There’s re­cent re­search which sug­gests that a lot of the pro­duc­tiv­ity apps are slow­ing peo­ple down,” he says, “par­tic­u­larly the way you have to switch con­stantly be­tween them, which is deadly for pro­duc­tiv­ity. But apps for your phone to help you not to use your phone? That’s where it starts to get re­ally re­ally weird.”

The tech­niques that have been proven to as­sist us with man­ag­ing chores tend to sit out­side the world of tech­nol­ogy: things such as GTD® (en­dorsed by Lamont), Kan­ban boards, or the Po­modoro method, which forms the ba­sis of the For­est app.

D’Alessio notes that as ma­chine learn­ing tech­niques im­prove, apps will gain the abil­ity to help us di­rectly. “Ini­tially, they will prompt us and learn from us,” he says, “be­fore mov­ing into an area where they can com­plete er­rands.” But for now, pro­duc­tiv­ity apps will only re­ally put out what you put in. “What peo­ple want,” says Lamont, “is for it to spit out a ticket say­ing: ‘Of the 300 things you have to do, this is the right one’. But as the say­ing goes, a fool with a tool is still a fool.”

Getty / Sup­plied

Francesco D’Alle­sio, above, says For­est, left, is a nice op­tion, but that you should choose your apps wisely

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